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Quantum Times Book Reviews

Following Tuesday’s post, here is the second piece I wrote for the latest issue of the Quantum Times. It is a review of two recent popular science books on quantum computing by John Gribbin and Jonathan Dowling. Jonathan Dowling has the now obligatory book author’s blog, which you should also check out.

Book Review

  • Title: Computing With Quantum Cats: From Colossus To Qubits
  • Author: John Gribbin
  • Publisher: Bantam, 2013
  • Title: Schrödinger’s Killer App: Race To Build The World’s First Quantum Computer
  • Author: Jonathan Dowling
  • Publisher: CRC Press, 2013

The task of writing a popular book on quantum computing is a daunting
one. In order to get it right, you need to explain the subtleties of
theoretical computer science, at least to the point of understanding
what makes some problems hard and some easy to tackle on a classical
computer. You then need to explain the subtle distinctions between
classical and quantum physics. Both of these topics could, and indeed
have, filled entire popular books on their own. Gribbin’s strategy is
to divide his book into three sections of roughly equal length, one on
the history of classical computing, one on quantum theory, and one on
quantum computing. The advantage of this is that it makes the book
well paced, as the reader is not introduced to too many new ideas at
the same time. The disadvantage is that there is relatively little
space dedicated to the main topic of the book.

In order to weave the book together into a narrative, Gribbin
dedicates each chapter except the last to an individual prominent
scientist, specifically: Turing, von Neumann, Feynman, Bell and
Deutsch. This works well as it allows him to interleave the science
with biography, making the book more accessible. The first two
sections on classical computing and quantum theory display Gribbin’s
usual adeptness at popular writing. In the quantum section, my usual
pet peeves about things being described as “in two states at the same
time” and undue prominence being given to the many-worlds
interpretation apply, but no more than to any other popular treatment
of quantum theory. The explanations are otherwise very good. I
would, however, quibble with some of the choice of material for the
classical computing section. It seems to me that the story of how we
got from abstract Turing machines to modern day classical computers,
which is the main topic of the von Neumann chapter, is tangential to
the main topic of the book, and Gribbin fails to discuss more relevant
topics such as the circuit model and computational complexity in this
section. Instead these topics are squeezed in very briefly into the
quantum computing section, and Gribbin flubs the description of
computational complexity. For example, see if you can spot the
problems with the following three quotes:

“…problems that can be solved by efficient algorithms belong to a
category that mathematicians call `complexity class P’…”

“Another class of problem, known as NP, are very difficult to
solve…”

“All problems in P are, of course, also in NP.”

The last chapter of Gribbin’s book is an tour of the proposed
experimental implementations of quantum computing and the success
achieved so far. This chapter tries to cover too much material too
quickly and is rather credulous about the prospects of each
technology. Gribbin also persists with the device of including potted
biographies of the main scientists involved. The total effect is like
running at high speed through an unfamiliar woods, while someone slaps
you in the face rapidly with CVs and scientific papers. I think the
inclusion of such a detailed chapter was a mistake, especially since
it will seem badly out of date in just a year or two. Finally,
Gribbin includes an epilogue about the controversial issue of discord
in non-universal models of quantum computing. This is a bold
inclusion, which will either seem prescient or silly after the debate
has died down. My own preference would have been to focus on
well-established theory.

In summary, Gribbin’s has written a good popular book on quantum
computing, perhaps the best so far, but it is not yet a great one. It
is not quite the book you should give to your grandmother to explain
what you do. I fear she will unjustly come out of it thinking she is
not smart enough to understand, whereas in fact the failure is one of
unclear explanation in a few areas on the author’s part.

Dowling’s book is a different kettle of fish from Gribbin’s. He
claims to be aiming for the same audience of scientifically curious
lay readers, but I am afraid they will struggle. Dowling covers more
or less everything he is interested in and I think the rapid fire
topic changes would leave the lay reader confused. However, we all
know that popular science books written by physicists are really meant
to be read by other physicists rather than by the lay reader. From
this perspective, there is much valuable material in Dowling’s book.

Dowling is really on form when he is discussing his personal
experience. This mainly occurs in chapters 4 and 5, which are about
the experimental implementation of quantum computing and other quantum
technologies. There is also a lot of material about the internal
machinations of military and intelligence funding agencies, which
Dowling has copious experience of on both sides of the fence. Much of
this material is amusing and will be of value to those interested in
applying for such funding. As you might expect, Dowling’s assessment
of the prospects of the various proposed technologies is much more
accurate and conservative than Gribbin’s. In particular his treatment
of the cautionary tale of NMR quantum computing is masterful and his
assessment of non fully universal quantum computers, such as the D-Wave
One, is insightful. Dowling also gives an excellent account of quantum
technologies beyond quantum computing and cryptography, such as
quantum metrology, which are often neglected in popular treatments.

Chapter 6 is also interesting, although it is a bit of a hodge-podge
of different topics. It starts with a debunking of David Kaiser’s
thesis that the “hippies” of the Fundamental Fysiks group in Berkeley
were instrumental in the development of quantum information via their
involvement in the no-cloning theorem. Dowling rightly points out
that the origins of quantum cryptography are independent of this,
going back to Wiesner in the 1970’s, and that the no-cloning theorem
would probably have been discovered as a result of this. This section
is only missing a discussion of the role of Wheeler, since he was
really the person who made it OK for mainstream physicists to think
about the foundations of quantum theory again, and who encouraged his
students and postdocs to do so in information theoretic terms. Later
in the chapter, Dowling moves into extremely speculative territory,
arguing for “the reality of Hilbert space” and discussing what quantum
artificial intelligence might be like. I disagree with about as much
as I agree with in this section, but it is stimulating and
entertaining nonetheless.

You may notice that I have avoided talking about the first few
chapters of the book so far. Unfortunately, I do not have many
positive things to say about them.

The first couple of chapters cover the EPR experiment, Bell’s theorem,
and entanglement. Here, Dowling employs the all too common device of
psychoanalysing Einstein. As usual in such treatments, there is a
thin caricature of Einstein’s actual views followed by a lot of
comments along the lines of “Einstein wouldn’t have liked this” and
“tough luck Einstein”. I personally hate this sort of narrative with
a passion, particularly since Einstein’s response to quantum theory
was perfectly rational at the time he made it and who knows what he
would have made of Bell’s theorem? Worse than this, Dowling’s
treatment perpetuates the common myth that determinism is one of the
assumptions of both the EPR argument and Bell’s theorem. Of course,
CHSH does not assume this, but even EPR and Bell’s original argument
only use it when it can be derived from the quantum predictions.
Thus, there is not the option of “uncertainty” for evading the
consequences of these theorems, as Dowling maintains throughout the
book.

However, the worst feature of these chapters is the poor choice of
analogy. Dowling insists on using a single analogy to cover
everything, that of an analog clock or wristwatch. This analogy is
quite good for explaining classical common cause correlations,
e.g. Alice and Bob’s watches will always be anti-correlated if they
are located in timezones with a six hour time difference, and for
explaining the use of modular arithmetic in Shor’s algorithm.
However, since Dowling has earlier placed such great emphasis on the
interpretation of the watch readings in terms of actual time, it falls
flat when describing entanglement in which we have to imagine that the
hour hand randomly points to an hour that has nothing to do with time.
I think this is confusing and that a more abstract analogy,
e.g. colored balls in boxes, would have been better.

There are also a few places where Dowling makes flatly incorrect
statements. For example, he says that the OR gate does mod 2 addition
and he says that the state |00> + |01> + |10> + |11> is entangled. I
also found Dowling’s criterion for when something should be called an
ENT gate (his terminology for the CNOT gate) confusing. He says that
something is not an ENT gate unless it outputs an entangled state, but
of course this depends on what the input state is. For example, he
says that NMR quantum computers have no ENT gates, whereas I think
they do have them, but they just cannot produce the pure input states
needed to generate entanglement from them.

The most annoying thing about this book is that it is in dire need of
a good editor. There are many typos and basic fact-checking errors.
For example, John Bell is apparently Scottish and at one point a D-Wave
computer costs a mere $10,000. There is also far too much repetition.
For example, the tale of how funding for classical optical computing
dried up after Conway and Mead instigated VLSI design for silicon
chips, but then the optical technology was reused used to build the
internet, is told in reasonable detail at least three different times.
The first time it is an insightful comment, but by the third it is
like listening to an older relative with a limited stock of stories.
There are also whole sections that are so tangentially related to the
main topic that they should have been omitted, such as the long anti
string-theory rant in chapter six.

Dowling has a cute and geeky sense of humor, which comes through well
most of the time, but on occasion the humor gets in the way of clear
exposition. For example, in a rather silly analogy between Shor’s
algorithm and a fruitcake, the following occurs:

“We dive into the molassified rum extract of the classical core of the
Shor algorithm fruitcake and emerge (all sticky) with a theorem proved
in the 1760s…”

If he were a writing student, Dowling would surely get kicked out of
class for that. Finally, unless your name is David Foster Wallace, it
is not a good idea to put things that are essential to following the
plot in the footnotes. If you are not a quantum scientist then it is
unlikely that you know who Charlie Bennett and Dave Wineland are or
what NIST is, but then the quirky names chosen in the first few
chapters will be utterly confusing. They are explained in the main
text, but only much later. Otherwise, you have to hope that the
reader is not the sort of person who ignores footnotes. Overall,
having a sense of humor is a good thing, but there is such a thing as
being too cute.

Despite these criticisms, I would still recommend Dowling’s book to
physicists and other academics with a professional interest in quantum
technology. I think it is a valuable resource on the history of the
subject. I would steer the genuine lay reader more in the direction
of Gribbin’s book, at least until a better option becomes available.

Quantum Times Article about Surveys on the Foundations of Quantum Theory

A new edition of The Quantum Times (newsletter of the APS topical group on Quantum Information) is out and I have two articles in it. I am posting the first one here today and the second, a book review of two recent books on quantum computing by John Gribbin and Jonathan Dowling, will be posted later in the week. As always, I encourage you to download the newsletter itself because it contains other interesting articles and announcements other than my own. In particlar, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that Ian Durham, current editor of The Quantum Times, is stepping down as editor at some point before the March meeting. If you are interested in getting more involved in the topical group, I would encourage you to put yourself forward. Details can be found at the end of the newsletter.

Upon reformatting my articles for the blog, I realized that I have reached almost Miguel Navascues levels of crankiness. I guess this might be because I had a stomach bug when I was writing them. Today’s article is a criticism of the recent “Snapshots of Foundational Attitudes Toward Quantum Mechanics” surveys that appeared on the arXiv and generated a lot of attention. The article is part of a point-counterpoint, with Nathan Harshman defending the surveys. Here, I am only posting my part in its original version. The newsletter version is slightly edited from this, most significantly in the removal of my carefully constructed title.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Snapshots of Foundational Attitudes Toward Quantum Mechanics

Q1. Which of the following questions is best resolved by taking a straw
poll of physicists attending a conference?

A. How long ago did the big bang happen?

B. What is the correct approach to quantum gravity?

C. Is nature supersymmetric?

D. What is the correct way to understand quantum theory?

E. None of the above.

By definition, a scientific question is one that is best resolved by
rational argument and appeal to empirical evidence.  It does not
matter if definitive evidence is lacking, so long as it is conceivable
that evidence may become available in the future, possibly via
experiments that we have not conceived of yet.  A poll is not a valid
method of resolving a scientific question.  If you answered anything
other than E to the above question then you must think that at least
one of A-D is not a scientific question, and the most likely culprit
is D.  If so, I disagree with you.

It is possible to legitimately disagree on whether a question is
scientific.  Our imaginations cannot conceive of all possible ways,
however indirect, that a question might get resolved.  The lesson from
history is that we are often wrong in declaring questions beyond the
reach of science.  For example, when big bang cosmology was first
introduced, many viewed it as unscientific because it was difficult to
conceive of how its predictions might be verified from our lowly
position here on Earth.  We have since gone from a situation in which
many people thought that the steady state model could not be
definitively refuted, to a big bang consensus with wildly fluctuating
estimates of the age of the universe, and finally to a precision value
of 13.77 +/- 0.059 billion years from the WMAP data.

Traditionally, many physicists separated quantum theory into its
“practical part” and its “interpretation”, with the latter viewed as
more a matter of philosophy than physics.  John Bell refuted this by
showing that conceptual issues have experimental consequences.  The
more recent development of quantum information and computation also
shows the practical value of foundational thinking.  Despite these
developments, the view that “interpretation” is a separate
unscientific subject persists.  Partly this is because we have a
tendency to redraw the boundaries.  “Interpretation” is then a
catch-all term for the issues we cannot resolve, such as whether
Copenhagen, Bohmian mechanics, many-worlds, or something else is the
best way of looking at quantum theory.  However, the lesson of big
bang cosmology cautions against labelling these issues unscientific.
Although interpretations of quantum theory are constructed to yield
the same or similar enough predictions to standard quantum theory,
this need not be the case when we move beyond the experimental regime
that is now accessible.  Each interpretation is based on a different
explanatory framework, and each suggests different ways of modifying
or generalizing the theory.  If we think that quantum theory is not
our final theory then interpretations are relevant in constructing its
successor.  This may happen in quantum gravity, but it may equally
happen at lower energies, since we do not yet have an experimentally
confirmed theory that unifies the other three forces.  The need to
change quantum theory may happen sooner than you expect, and whichever
explanatory framework yields the next theory will then be proven
correct.  It is for this reason that I think question D is scientific.

Regardless of the status of question D, straw polls, such as the three
that recently appeared on the arXiv [1-3], cannot help us to resolve
it, and I find it puzzling that we choose to conduct them for this
question, but not for other controversial issues in physics.  Even
during the decades in which the status of big bang cosmology was
controversial, I know of no attempts to poll cosmologists’ views on
it.  Such a poll would have been viewed as meaningless by those who
thought cosmology was unscientific, and as the wrong way to resolve
the question by those who did think it was scientific.  The same is
true of question D, and the fact that we do nevertheless conduct polls
suggests that the question is not being treated with the same respect
as the others on the list.

Admittedly, polls about controversial scientific questions are
relevant to the sociology of science, and they might be useful to the
beginning graduate student who is more concerned with their career
prospects than following their own rational instincts.  From this
perspective, it would be just as interesting to know what percentage
of physicists think that supersymmetry is on the right track as it is
to know about their views on quantum theory.  However, to answer such
questions, polls need careful design and statistical analysis.  None
of the three polls claims to be scientific and none of them contain
any error analysis.  What then is the point of them?

The three recent polls are based on a set of questions designed by
Schlosshauer, Kofler and Zeilinger, who conducted the first poll at a
conference organized by Zeilinger [1].  The questions go beyond just
asking for a preferred interpretation of quantum theory, but in the
interests of brevity I will focus on this aspect alone.  In the
Schlosshauer et al.  poll, Copenhagen comes out top, closely followed
by “information-based/information-theoretical” interpretations.  The
second comes from a conference called “The Philosophy of Quantum
Mechanics” [2].  There was a larger proportion of self-identified
philosophers amongst those surveyed and “I have no preferred
interpretation” came out as the clear winner, not so closely followed
by de Broglie-Bohm theory, which had obtained zero votes in the poll
of Schlosshauer et al.  Copenhagen is in joint third place along with
objective collapse theories.  The third poll comes from “Quantum
theory without observers III” [3], at which de Broglie-Bohm got a
whopping 63% of the votes, not so closely followed by objective
collapse.

What we can conclude from this is that people who went to a meeting
organized by Zeilinger are likely to have views similar to Zeilinger.
People who went to a philosophy conference are less likely to be
committed, but are much more likely to pick a realist interpretation
than those who hang out with Zeilinger.  Finally, people who went to a
meeting that is mainly about de Broglie-Bohm theory, organized by the
world’s most prominent Bohmians, are likely to be Bohmians.  What have
we learned from this that we did not know already?

One thing I find especially amusing about these polls is how easy it
would have been to obtain a more representative sample of physicists’
views.  It is straightforward to post a survey on the internet for
free.  Then all you have to do is write a letter to Physics Today
asking people to complete the survey and send the URL to a bunch of
mailing lists.  The sample so obtained would still be self-selecting
to some degree, but much less so than at a conference dedicated to
some particular approach to quantum theory.  The sample would also be
larger by at least an order of magnitude.  The ease with which this
could be done only illustrates the extent to which these surveys
should not even be taken semi-seriously.

I could go on about the bad design of the survey questions and about
how the error bars would be huge if you actually bothered to calculate
them.  It is amusing how willing scientists are to abandon the
scientific method when they address questions outside their own field.
However, I think I have taken up enough of your time already.  It is
time we recognized these surveys for the nonsense that they are.

References

[1] M. Schlosshauer, J. Kofler and A. Zeilinger, A Snapshot of
Foundational Attitudes Toward Quantum Mechanics, arXiv:1301.1069
(2013).

[2] C. Sommer, Another Survey of Foundational Attitudes Towards
Quantum Mechanics, arXiv:1303.2719 (2013).

[3] T. Norsen and S. Nelson, Yet Another Snapshot of Foundational
Attitudes Toward Quantum Mechanics, arXiv:1306.4646 (2013).

Q+ Hangout: Steven Flammia

Here are the details of the next Q+ hangout.

Speaker: Steven Flammia (University of Sydney)

Title: Thermalization, Error-Correction, and Memory Lifetime for Ising Anyon Systems

Abstract:
We consider two-dimensional lattice models that support Ising anyonic excitations and are coupled to a thermal bath, and we propose a phenomenological model to describe the resulting short-time dynamics, including pair-creation, hopping, braiding, and fusion of anyons. By explicitly constructing topological quantum error-correcting codes for this class of system, we use our thermalization model to estimate the lifetime of quantum information stored in the code space. To decode and correct errors in these codes, we adapt several existing topological decoders to the non-Abelian setting: one based on Edmond’s perfect matching algorithm and one based on the renormalization group. These decoders provably run in polynomial time, and one of them has a provable threshold against a simple iid noise model. Using numerical simulations, we find that the error correction thresholds for these codes/decoders are comparable to similar values for the toric code (an Abelian sub-model consisting of a restricted set of allowed anyons). To our knowledge, these are the first threshold results for quantum codes without explicit Pauli algebraic structure. Joint work with Courtney Brell and Simon Burton.

To watch the talk live go to the Q+ page at the appointed hour.

To keep up to date on the latest news about Q+ hangouts you can follow us on:

or visit our website at http://qplus.burgarth.de

FQXi Essay Contest

I wrote an essay for the FQXi essay contest.  This year’s theme is “It from bit or bit from it?” and I decided to write about the extent to which Wheeler’s “it from bit” helps us to understand the origin of quantum probabilities from a subjective Bayesian point of view.   You can go here to read and rate the essay and it would be especially great if any fellow FQXi members would do that.

Q+ Hangout: Bill Wootters

Here are the details of the next Q+ hangout.

Date/time: Tuesday 18th June 2013 2pm BST/UTC+1

Speaker: Bill Wootters (Williams College)

Title: What is the origin of complex probability amplitudes?

Abstract: I begin this presentation with an attempt to explain the origin of probability amplitudes in quantum theory, but the explanation makes sense only if those amplitudes are real. This result provides motivation for studying the real-vector-space variant of quantum theory. I show how a particular model within real-vector-space quantum theory can produce the appearance of complex probability amplitudes. In this model, a special binary subsystem of the universe, called the universal rebit or “ubit,” plays the role of the complex phase factor. In a certain limit the effective theory emerging from the model mimics standard quantum theory, but if we stop short of this limit the model predicts the spontaneous decoherence of isolated systems.

To watch the talk live go to http://gplus.to/qplus at the appointed hour.

To keep up to date on the latest news about Q+ hangouts you can follow us on:

or visit our website at http://qplus.burgarth.de

Q+ Hangout: David Poulin

Here are the details of the next Q+ hangout.

Date/time: Mon. 27th May 2013 3pm BST (UTC+1)

Speaker: David Poulin (University of Sherbrooke)

Title: Tradeoffs Between Thermal and Quantum Fluctuations in 2D Quantum Memories

Abstract: Under a certain set of conditions collectively known as “local topological order”, the low energy spectrum of a system is robust to local perturbations. This has the consequence that quantum information encoded in the degenerate ground state of such a system is stable at zero temperature. On the other hand, the existence of a macroscopic energy barrier between ground states imply that information encoded in the low energy manifold is robust against thermal fluctuations. Here, we demonstrate that for local commuting projector codes, local topological order prohibits the existence of an energy barrier, which shows a tradeoff between robustness to quantum and thermal fluctuations.

To watch the talk live, go to http://gplus.to/qplus at the appointed hour. To keep up to date with the latest news about Q+ hangouts you can follow us on:

or visit our website.

Q+ Hangout: Dietrich Leibfried (NIST)

Here are the details of the next Q+ hangout. This is our “Nobel Prize” lecture. Dietrich is a long time colleague of David Wineland at NIST and will tell us about the latest research from the Ion Storage Group. Please note the unusual start time of 5pm BST(UTC+1)

To join the hangout or watch the livestream go to http://gplus.to/qplus at the appointed hour.

Date: 23rd April 2013 5pm BST(UTC+1)

Speaker: Dietrich Leibfried (NIST)

Title: Towards scalable quantum information processing and quantum simulation with trapped ions

Abstract:
Quantum information processing (QIP) and Quantum Simulation (QS) can potentially provide an exponential speedup for certain problems over the corresponding (known) algorithms on conventional computers. QIP makes use of the counter-intuitive properties of quantum mechanics, like entanglement and the superposition principle (being in more states than one simultaneously). On the way towards a useful QIP device these properties, mostly subject of thought experiments so far, will have to become a practical reality. I will discuss experiments towards Quantum Information Processing (QIP) and Quantum Simulation (QS) with trapped ions. Most requirements for QIP and QS have been demonstrated in this system, with two big challenges remaining: Improving operation fidelity and scaling up to larger numbers of qubits.

The architecture pursued at the Ion Storage Group at NIST is based on quantum information stored in long lived internal (hyperfine) states of the ions. We investigate the use of laser beams and microwave fields to induce both single-qubit rotations and multi-qubit gates mediated by the Coulomb interaction between ions. Moving ions through a multi-zone trap architecture allows for keeping the number of ions per zone small, while sympathetic cooling with a second ion species can remove energy and entropy from the system.

After a brief introduction to these elements, I will present the current status of experiments and some future perspectives for QIP and QS.

This work has been supported by IARPA, DARPA, ARO, ONR, and the NIST Quantum Information Program.

To keep up to date with the latest news and announcements about Q+ hangouts you can follow us on:

or visit our website http://qplus.burgarth.de